Category Archives: Classroom Culture

Five Ideas that Beat the Dread

A few years ago I stopped reviewing class rules and smacking down my syllabus on the first day of school. I had been doing some research on chronic stress (mostly my own) and read extensively about the fight, flight, freeze response. One description glared at me and gave me pause:  “You have a sense of dread.”

I remembered what I had been taught as a first year teacher:  Set yourself up as the authority figure. Be kind but firm. Establish norms quickly so students know what you will and will not tolerate in your classroom.

Then, almost in the same breathe, I was told:  Develop relationships. Learn students’ names. Let them help develop class rules.

And I muddled through doing a combination of both the best I knew how. Those first few days of my first few years were rocky to say the least. And in hindsight, it’s clear:  there was dread. Lots of dread.

So when I read up on the fight, flight, and freeze response, I realized a big part of my problem:  With my seemingly simple attempt at outlining classroom expectations and detailing how ‘my class would run, chemicals danced a jig in students’ brains: fight, flight, or freeze. Now, I know my syllabus is not on the scale of major life trauma most often associated with this fff response theory, but many of my juniors and seniors didn’t want to be in school anyway. Why was I compounding it?

I learned a better way.

Wait.

Let every other teacher lay down the law. Lay out their plans. Run through the rules.

On the first day of school — maybe even the first five days of school — just write. And talk. Let students drive the discussion. Let them ask questions. Give them a chance to be seen and heard and welcomed.

“Community before curriculum” Angela wrote in her last post, and I love her thinking there. I also think we can merge the two on the first day of school and lay a firm foundation for thinking and talking every day thereafter. We can jump start community and begin our curriculum as we put pen to the page and write.

Here’s my top five sources that beg a response and invite students to write on the first day of school (or at least the first week or so):

  1. To This Day by Shane Koyczan.

Give every student a notecard and ask them to watch and listen and then respond to the poem as a whole or to a line they particularly like or relate to. (I’ve learned some pretty heavy stuff from students over the years. So many of them can relate to the themes in this poem.)

  1. How poetry can help kids turn a fear of literature into love by Jason Reynolds on PBS.

Give every student a sticky note and ask them to think about their reading lives. Then after they listen to Mr. Reynolds talk about reading, ask students to rate themselves. Are they readers eager for the pit bulls or for the puppies? Why? (I quickly find who my readers are and with whom I need to take on the challenge of helping them want to read.) Then for a little more of a challenge, on the flip side of the sticky, ask them to describe in poetic form their feelings about poetry. (You’ll learn even more.)

  1. Possibilities by Wislawa Szymborska. Or the version here where Amanda Palmer reads the poem.

Give every student a copy of the poem. Then read the poem aloud and ask students to write their own list of possibilities. Their list can be straightforward, funny, or interesting things they want the class to know. (I wrote about how I used this poem to practice imitation a couple of years ago. It’s a great lesson and a great poem to revisit.)

  1. Three poems:

“My Name Is,” an excerpt from Jason Reynolds’ book Long Way Down. (If you haven’t read this book, oh, my goodness. It’s amazing!)

My Name Is by Jason Reynolds

“Instructions” by Rudy Francisco.

Instructions by Rudy Francisco

“Like You” by Roque Dalton, translated by Jack Hirschman

Give students copies of all three poems and a notecard or piece of paper. Read them aloud. Ask students to read them again and then to write a response. They can respond to just one of the poems, a line from a poem, or anything the poems make them think or feel. There is no right or wrong. Just write your thinking. (This is always an interesting response, and it tells me a lot about how to help my students. Many of them will begin to write an analysis of one of the poems — or all three. Others understand that I am asking for a different kind of thinking, one that leads them into ideas for their own poems, stories, or essays.)

  1. Author Bios!

Give students access to books that have clever, witty, or interesting author bios. YA authors like Julie Murphy, Jeff Zentner, Chris Crutcher, Libba Bray, and Gina Damico are great ones, but there are many with a bit of quirk that will draw students in and spark their interest in reading these author’s books. Ask students to explore the author bios and then make a list of the books they think they’d like to explore this semester. Have them write the author’s names on sticky notes for you to put in your conferring notes.

If you want to take this author bio idea further — (this is my favorite):

Read several professional author bios aloud. Ask students what information is shared and make a T-chart that lists the what on the left, e.g., name, personal hobbies, awards won, where the author lives, who the author lives with, etc. Then, ask students to describe how this information is shared and add these craft moves to the right. This is the how. For example, short and sometimes incomplete sentences, lists, 3rd person, the author’s name is first, witty word choice, etc. Finally, ask students to write their own author bio while you write yours as a model. Encourage them to try to craft their bio to include ideas from both the what and the how side of the T-chart. Below are two of my students’ bios from this past year.

Stephany author bio

Tomias author bio

(The author bio idea is Lisa’s baby, and she wrote about it here after I wrote about it here. It’s still the best idea I have ever heard to begin students on their journey into developing their identities as readers and as writers. I’ve used this idea in a model lesson for every workshop I’ve facilitated this summer, so if you were there, feel free to share the author bio you wrote this summer in the comments. My newest one is below.)

I wish you happy reading and writing with your students this year. Please share your go to ideas for inviting students to write and build your community.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves books, pretending to garden, adolescents, and coconut cream pie — not necessarily in that order. She lives in North Texas with her dashing husband of 33 years, their twin-terror Shelties Mac and Des, and a not so loving love bird named Colonel Brandon. Amy spent the summer leading professional development in several districts across Texas and has grown especially fond of the Houston area. If only she could move… Follow her on Twitter @amyrass — and if you are not already, please follow this blog.

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3 Ways This Year Will be the Best Ever!!!

Can you feel it coming?  Do you smell new books and old desks?  Are you imagining the sounds of students shouldering their way through the halls and into your classroom like bees through long un-mown grass? (I’m a huge Oscar Wilde fanboy!)

Are you ready to hear a deep breath or quiet giggle interrupt a totally silent self-selected reading segment? Are you ready to mop up tears in buckets and heal emotional wounds with book bandages?

If not, you better get ready.  You may be starting school today, or maybe next week.  It doesn’t matter; time to get your mind right.

I’m ready to launch from the best summer of my life into the best teaching year of my life.  Happiness breeds happiness.

So here are three thoughts I have that will help me be the best teacher I’ve ever been.

  1. Book Talk like my teaching life depends on it…because it does.

If the number one tool in my belt is my classroom library, my number two is my ability to “sell” books.  We all know that we need to be able to sell books both informally and formally.

Informally, we confer with readers and talk about books with individual kids (and adults!) who are in the market for their next reading relationship.  This is the easy back and forth that comes with being a reader and contributing to a literacy rich classroom culture.

The formal moments, in my mind, are those points in time you carve out to stand in front of your class, or some group, and give them the hard sell on a book you’ve decided was worthy of their attention.

To me, these two different bookish scenarios require different thought processes and the latter is example is the one to which I plead my case.

Obviously we have to consider “how” we present the key information that we think will engender interest in deserving books.

But also, we have a massive burden to present books that offer a cultural variety of information that will allow our readers the “windows, mirrors, and doors” that Rudine Sims Bishop wrote about all the way back in 1990.

I took a step forward on the Sunday of the ILA conference and chose to attend a session featuring LGBTQ writers and their books.

Over and over, the panelists describe the point in their lives when they first encountered a character in whom they saw themselves.  Ashley Herring Blake, a primary grade teacher and middle grade writer from Tennessee talked about how she was 32 when it happened to her.  We have to be more pro-active when it comes to offering students windows, mirrors and doors.  Book talks are an opportunity in which we can’t afford to play it safe.

2. Love the kids like their learning lives depend on it…because it does.

I said it before: I will be 100% this year in telling my classes I love them before sending them out the door each period.  I’ve already been practicing with the Student Council kids that I hung out with at Fish Camp.  It was our first time to work together and as the day ended, I told them too. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

But I’m not just going to say it to their backs as they sprint out of the room.  I’m going to say it to their faces as they enter and I’m going to write it on their papers.  Reading and writing culture revolves around love: of texts, but more importantly the readers and writers.

3. Empower the students to read and write in a massive volume like our world depends on it…because it does.

We know how important volume is in a student’s growth.  We have to let them read and write more than we can ever think about grading.

Also, we have to give them room to read and write in ways that let them explore their place in the world. Anything less than this, and I’ve failed. I will not fail.

Charles Moore will, for the first time in many years, teach Freshman English this year. His bleeding heart required him to volunteer to sponsor Student Council at this new school. You can follow his antics on twitter at @ctcoach

 

 

 

 

ILA 2018 Conference Run-down!!! (and an epiphany!)

Am I the only person who feels super awkward meeting new people?

So I’m standing in the “New to ILA!!!” section of the Austin Convention Center early Saturday morning.  Several well spoken women and men address the throng of newbies and supply us with important information about the conference.  Remarks concluded and we are encouraged to visit with those around us, meet new people, and hang out.

I’m there by myself waiting for Gretchen Meyer, my fellow literacy advocate, to arrive. She shared this conference experience with me and I couldn’t ask for a better guide.

IMG_4479

Can you imagine a more awkwardly handsome face?

So I’m scanning the crowd looking for familiar faces, assuming there won’t be one.  I’m an award winning people-watcher and for those of you who aren’t, teachers can be incredibly fun to observe.  Anyways, Marcie, an incredibly nice women with a bright smile introduced herself to me and we talked about the conference and how excited we were to listen to the speakers at the General Meeting that was to begin shortly.

Both of us, my new ILA friend and I, massively underestimated the level of brilliance that was about to wash over me.  I listened to Adan Gonzalez talk about his success in the face of poverty and bigotry and how he works to fight those demons today.  Nadia Lopez blew the crowd away with the statement, “I opened a school to close a prison.”  So…um…wow.  If that wasn’t enough, we got to experience the passion of Cornelius Minor and his charge to consider, “How can we not stand for our children…when the traumas of the world weigh them down in our classrooms?”

I had to pinch myself.  Was the rest of the conference going to be this amazing? (It was.) Was this euphoria and uplifting feeling of being re-energized going to fade as I left this hall and moved on to the other presentations? (It didn’t.) Was I ever going to see my new friend, Marcie, again? (I did, on the big screen, at the end of the general meeting.)

Marcie

Meet Marcie Post, the Executive Director of the ILA.

Even now, back in League City, I can’t stop reflecting on the lessons I soaked in at ILA.  Maybe the biggest realization I came to, and there were many, wasn’t about books or kids or literacy.  This realization encompassed all those ideas, but was really about me.

I realized that above all else, I’m a “culture” guy.

I’ve identified myself by so many labels over the years: Football guy, Coach that can teach, Book Lover, Literacy Advocate, Student First Teacher… all those things. But, when its all said and done, after 16 years in the classroom, culture means everything to me. The culture in my classroom is, obviously, important. Just as important, perhaps, and, for the most part out of my control, is the culture of the people around me.  I want to be around teachers that are happy people.  I want to feel like we are all in this together and that the kids will be the big winners in this world.

I think this seed might have been planted by this blog post by Lauren Ambeau, an intermediate school principal in my school district that posts on her own blog. Or it might reach all the way back to my first two principals, Marlene Skiba and Deanna Daws; two women that made me feel confident and valued in my teaching role.

I think, also, the people I learned from at my most recent, and longest, stay had a lot to do with it.  I have the honor of presenting with the brilliant Jenna Zucha next week and this woman took time out of her summer, twice actually, to visit with me about our upcoming opportunity to present about writing to the leaders and stake-holders of our district.  She guest posted on this blog back in May.  What’s funny about our second meeting, is that one of my best friends happened to be at the very same Starbucks. He’s a genius, and famous.  You might have heard of him… Ashton Kutcher thinks he’s cool.

bro

This summer’s Literacy Institute, our own sort of ILA, comes to mind as well.  Billy Eastman and Amy Rasmussen build a culture of respect, trust, and love that I try to recreate in my classroom.  The huge win came from spending three weeks with the beautiful souls whose teaching team I’m so looking forward to joining.   We laughed enough to get stares from the other groups and cried buckets on the last day as we bared our souls through our writing.  Sarah Roy guest posted about that process just two weeks ago and then Austin Darrow guest posted for Amy the next day!!!  Amanda Penny is one of the most fun loving people I’ve ever met. Looks like the culture I’m joining at my new place is strong, and, having gotten the opportunity to interact with the instructional leaders there, I know this is by design.

Kylene Beers, Sunday afternoon, said, “Our democracy requires that we hold onto our own literacy and not turn it over to a few pundits on this network or that one.”  This statement reminded me that I posted about this very same idea back in February.  Thus I’m reminded further that this blog, this digital workshop, is a culturally supportive space for teachers like me.

There is so much more to write about.  I plan to sprinkle those tidbits through my posts this year.

Understand this: I’ll fight for culture.  I’ll seek out good people and happy teachers for the rest of my teaching career.  The kids deserve it.

Charles Moore has his pool looking as clear as crystal.  He’s done a horrible job being a reader this summer. His kids spend most nights sleeping in a blanket fort in the boy’s room (thick as thieves, those two.)  He’s looking forward to sharing the experience of discovering a new school with the incoming 9th graders at Clear Creek High School.

Guest Post: Why I Want My Classroom To Run Like Zappos

I like shoes. Like many 20 something teachers, I want some variety in what I wear to 9d67eecb760e5f2da5199c53ffd5e85awork (heels, flats, boots, hand-painted Tom’s with Shakespeare’s quotes…) which means I’ve spent a lot of time perusing, purchasing, and inevitably returning some of those online shoe purchases. Hands down, their company is one of the easiest to return or exchange those shoes that don’t quite match that new blazer, I also bought online. All that aside, that isn’t why I want my classroom to run like their company.

For the last few years, Zappos has consistently shown up on the best places to work list. But why? This company has recently touted movement toward a “holacracy.”  This term, initially dubbed by the political writer, Arthur Koestler, focuses on the importance of individual autonomy and self-governance. Zappos prides itself on letting their employees be their own boss. Who hasn’t at one point or another dreamed of being their own boss?

Zappos’ move toward a holacracy is one that we’ve been slogging toward in the academic world for years. Author of multiple New York Times best-sellers and Ted-Talk Famous, Daniel Pink’s research on behavioral science, especially that on motivation, has verified what we as teachers have known for years; when we let the students be the boss, the quality of work often shows a shocking improvement in both output and originality.

Jumping on the Genius Hour bandwagon, with guidance from peers, I integrated this concept into my 12th grade English course. Once a week for twelve weeks, students researched and created a project that was their choice. In our district, people more powerful than me pushed for this concept to be a “real” part of our 12th-grade curriculum: the capstone of their high school experience. Through new curriculum development and alignment, this new course came to fruition. Relying heavily on Pink’s tenets for motivation, I’ve found that the level of work submitted to my “College Prep” English 12 classes often surpasses that of their Advanced Placement counterparts. Students have dazzled me by turning their ideas of starting a nonprofit organization into reality. Students who’ve written business plans for an online venture they want to begin in college.  Students who’ve created and launched their own drop-shipping companies and websites. Students who mastered specific aspects of Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawing style. Students who analyzed the psychology of repetition changing the neuroplasticity of brains. Students who completed a statistical analysis of data where they collected and disaggregated data on whether standardized test scores are representative of student GPA. Students who have designed and coded games of their own creation.

Students who don’t consider themselves “lovers of English” find success in this class. Students with special needs find success in this class. Why? Because, for once, they are their own boss.

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 10.53.17 AMWe start the trimester by exploring Pink’s research using excerpts from Drive and Dan Ariely’s book Payoff while also viewing Pink’s RSA Animate video. While my favorite part might be the Back the Future references, what we actually discuss are the ideas of companies like Skype, Wikipedia, and Atlassian. As a class, we dissect how each of these companies fulfills the concepts of purpose, autonomy, and mastery.

The conversation inevitably leads to the question: How are we going to do that in a class? From those big ideas (no, I don’t expect you to start a fully functional company), we scale back. What can students realistically complete in twelve weeks?

After brainstorming and project tuning, I become more of an instructor on educational pedagogy than the traditional English teacher. Each student is responsible for creating their individual learning plan and personal curriculum. Some days I slip on my curriculum boots and help kids write their own essential and guiding questions, explore (and explain) the Common Core State Standards, climb up Bloom’s Taxonomy and wade through Webb’s Depths of Knowledge. Students know these educational researchers and can articulate how their research and projects are fulfilling these expectations for curriculum. On other days, I tie on my English teacher tennis shoes and help students improve their research skills, encourage networking for action research, and determine the structure for research writing, revising, and editing.

Encouraged by the holacracy of their working environment, Zappos team members might set the record for longest and friendliest customer service calls. They might send you flowers when they make a mistake on your order. These employees go the extra mile not because they must, but because they want to.

In my classroom, I want students to go that extra mile: give an hour-long expert presentation on their learning, start a nonprofit, paint a mural in an impoverished community, teach their peers self-defense, create, design and 3-D print a new product. What does that mean for me as a teacher?

I compare it to watching my niece learning to tie her shoes. Even though it would be so much faster for me to tie her shoes for her, it is essential to explore the process and allow her to move at her own pace. Sometimes you’ve got to let her figure out if bunny ears or loop-swoop-and pull works best.

I want the same experience for my high school seniors. No matter the age, people learn best when they can be their own boss. Though it is easier said than done, we need to think about our identity as educators in an ever-shifting perspective. We need to continue to revise what it means to be a teacher. There are moments when you are needed to be the expert in English, literature, language and writing, but in a class that thrives on Genius Hour organization, you also have to accept that you are not the expert in every single avenue of research your students will take. As the teacher, you do your best to learn alongside your students and model what it means to be inquisitive and passionate about learning.  It takes time and a willingness on our part as educators to take a step back from being the “sage on the stage” and allow students to explore and engage in new content in a way that is meaningful to them.

Hayley McKinney is an English teacher in Birmingham Public Schools where she primarily teaches 10th and 12th grade English as well as public speaking classes.  She coaches forensic and debate in her spare time. She recently completed a Masters of Arts in Educational Leadership.

 

My Number 1 Tip for Moving Readers and Writers

My go-to question for readers and writers who don’t know where to go next is: What have you been thinking about lately?

thinker

Whatcha thinkin’ about?

That’s it.  That one question works just as well on adults as it does on kids.  It makes people think about who they are and where they are in their thinking.  Whether it’s a theme, issue, or struggle, I can go to my library and present a handful of books to meet almost every reader’s needs. Struggling writers need to examine themselves in that same way.

This very blog, for instance, has so many posts about the importance of making connections with kids.  Look here, here, and here, for just a few examples.  There shouldn’t be any argument about prioritizing the hearts and minds of our students.

Take me, for example: I’m addicted to YouTube.  My subscription list is a mile long and the list of topics is a mile wide.

When I really look at it though, it turns out most of my channels connect thematically..  My feed is full of builders and makers and I look forward to their progress videos like I do the next Game of Thrones episode. It’s not exactly “appointment TV,” but it’s pretty close.

Some of my favorites:

I love this channel produced by April Wilkerson (a Texan!) where she designs and builds everything from Adirondack chairs to her own gigantic workshop!!!  This woman is an inspirational creator that shows me that I could learn how to do anything I put my mind to. Maybe this speaks to my need to build literate people.

TheCorvetteBen channel documents the restoration of cars, mostly C3 corvettes. As an owner of a 1970 Corvette, a family heirloom, I love watching a regular guy work on cars and save them from the trash heap.  It’s cool to me that he works cars like the one I work on.  Maybe this speaks to my need to save as many kids as I can.

Pure Living for Life shows the lives of a couple who sold everything, moved to Idaho, and started the process of building a timber frame house from scratch.  A lot of this channel is about “grit” and “problem solving.”  It reminds me of a major theme from our district’s Literacy Institute: the privilege to struggle.

Those are just three of the several dozen channels I watch, but the themes repeat themselves over and over.

Questions:

What do you watch? What types of media attracts you and appeals to your interests?

Do we need to be aware of the media our students consume? Could deepening our awareness help us make stronger connections to the issues in which our students are interested?

I think so.

Charles Moore is struggling to get his grandfather’s corvette to drive.  He is struggling to get in a summer reading rhythm because he can’t put down his iPad and he can’t convince himself to focus on reading One of Us is Lying.  He wants to go sit in that river in Wimberley, TX already!!!

The End is the Beginning

EDIT: Five minutes after scheduling this post last night I got the email from the Book Love Foundation informing me that I won a Book Love Grant. So….didn’t sleep much last night. Too full up with excitement to write this into the post in a more elegant way. My apologies.

Hello Friends,

Today is the 4th of June and this year, my sixteenth yearly journey through teaching, came to its inevitable conclusion. This “end” though is not only about the end of the school year, but the end of a major part of my life. It was a difficult year, full of hard realizations and tough decisions, floods of water and floods of bullets. Yet…I look forward to a new opportunity in August.

If you traced the path from my house to my school you’d see the tracks my tires have worn in the pavement.  For the past 11 years I’ve driven to the same address every morning and traced that route home every night.  For more than a quarter of my life Clear Springs High School felt like home.  Change, I’ve learned, is/was necessary.  Thankfully, I’ve been given the opportunity to transfer to another high school in our district and  i I eagerly anticipate building a new beginning with a new team.

This is a season of change for me as I’m not just leaving the safety of the only high school in which I’ve ever taught-  I’m leaving coaching.  I can’t begin to list all the reasons why I’ve made that decision, but I will share that time with my family is no longer a commodity upon which I’m willing to negotiate.  Its not a matter of letting go of “the dream” of coaching.  I lived the dream, invested time helping so many boys grow into men, and felt the heat under the lights on Friday nights.  Coaching was like poetry.  Poetry can be happy or sad…devastating or celebratory.

While so much will change, a lot will not. I won’t forget where I came from.  The thousands of hours I spent sweating on the grass still inform my instruction just like the classroom helped me be better on the grass.  I’ll still watch football like a coach; I’ll just do it from the stands holding hands with my daughter or with my arm around my wife.

I’m still insatiably hungry; more eager to learn and grow than ever before.  I’ll continue to seek out opportunities to meet people more knowledgeable than I am and who know a better way of doing things that I do. There are so many of those people out there. From national conferences, to team planning periods, its all new to me and couldn’t be more excited.

I will continue seeking the most effective means of maximizing the power of my instructional practices.  I will continue devouring professional texts and building collaborative relationships with the teachers around me.  I’ll keep applying to present at every possible venue from the campus level to the national level.  I will spread the gospel of literacy and hope to help make a small change in this big world.

I will find ways to empower those around me to love what they do as much as I do. I’ll also seek those that already love it as much as I do and can empower me to share in their energy.

I will read and write because it makes me a better teacher of reading and writing.

What stands out when I look back?

  1. Our “Rooted in Reading” tree is one of the most successful moves I’ve ever made in the classroom.  My students BEAMED when we talked about how many books they recorded on the leaves of that tree. Even when it was transplanted at semester, it continued to grow.
  2. I poured my heart into the kids more than ever before.  The other evening when I asked a colleague when he was going to write his book, he replied: “I don’t know, but its going to be about how it is to build strong relationships with kids.”  I couldn’t agree more.  I would guess that I had a 97% success rate of telling each class that I loved them as the bell rang to release them to their next class.  Next year = 100%.
  3. We all moved as readers and writers.  Some more than others.  Some of us (me) had further to move than others.
  4. Sponsoring Student Council was a massively formative experience for me.  I could write a book about our year and how much we accomplished.  Working with kids that signed up for the class, rather than other reasons, was incredible. These kids changed the world for the better.  They changed me too.

What stands out when I look forward?

  1. The CCISD Literacy Institute!!! I can’t wait to get started (this morning) on this very important work.  Cohort 2 gets to stand on the shoulders of giants.
  2. Life Changes: Not just the song by Thomas Rhett (which is great, btw) but I’ve made some big decisions about what is important to me and who are the people that I want to learn from and grow with.
  3. Making changes in this profession that give young people the tools to stave off the yoke of tyranny. (too idealistic?)
  4. Teaching Pre-AP classes.  I’ve never taught anything but on-level classes so I’m thrilled for this opportunity.

The best stories are the stories of discovery.  Its time to write Act II of my story.

Charles Moore is excited to join the faculty of Clear Creek High School.  He recently discovered the joy of writing curriculum.  He loves going to the movies with his wife, driving his classic Corvette and hates building gates (Its the worst). He just finished reading Ten Things We Did (and probably shouldn’t have).

3 Ways to “Wrap Up” Your School Year

I am an unabashed gift giver.

I love tangible ways to express my appreciation for friends, students, family, colleagues, and anyone else I count as important.

…I also love shopping.

But with an impending move to Wisconsin on the horizon, I don’t love clutter in my home–so I am gifting left and right. That was part of the inspiration this year for how I wanted to finish the semester with my students–students I’ve been with for multiple years, in some cases, and others who I’ve only gotten to know and learn with for one semester.

Like any ending, this one tended to color the ups and downs of our school year into a tone more rosy than reality may have painted. With two kids under two, a hectic semester of required assignments, and the ever-present student mood swings offered by snow days, spring break, and finals week, we all struggled at times to stay committed to our work. No school year is ever smooth, or perfect, or simple–but I still like to celebrate its end annually with something tangible. As such, I give each of my students a gift at the end of every year, and have every year since I began teaching.

Here are three ways I “wrapped up” the ending of this school year–literally.


The Gift of Reading

Two groups of my students and I have been together for two years now, and in those two years, I’ve gotten to know these kids (I mean, they’re adults, but I will always refer to my students as “kids” when I think of them) incredibly well. They will be teaching in all content areas, in all grade levels, but still–I can’t seem to turn off my English teacher brain long enough not to say, hmmm, I know exactly what book that forward-thinking history teacher would like.

So this year, I pulled from my own bookshelves one or two books for each of my students–for their personal reading, for their classrooms, or both. In each book, I wrote the student a note, then wrapped each book individually. This time-intensive gesture has been rewarding in spades as my students contact me to tell me they’ve read and loved their books.

The Gift of Writing

We use Google Docs quite frequently, and one of my favorite activities to have students work on is to respond to a writing prompt on a collaborative Google Doc and proceed to write, think, and argue together on one page.

So this year, I printed out every collaborative Google Doc, group-written book review, team-created list of strategies, or class-crafted series of ideal classrooms, social justice non-negotiables, and pedagogically challenging teaching moves that we’d created and bound them together into a class “Anthology of Awesome,” which each student received.

On our last day of class, we shared the anthologies with donuts and coffee. I also brought thank-you notes for students to write to one another–personal messages they hand-wrote and hand-delivered to their critical friends, who had helped read and respond to their work all semester long.

With these pieces of writing in their pockets, my students left class with tangible reminders of the intellectual portion of our time together.

The Gift of Family

For better or for worse, with the end of each school year together, a class is like a family. Some members are dysfunctional, some are estranged, but in general, we’re a bunch of former strangers who now love, appreciate, and respect one another more than we did four quarters ago.

To help us remember this time together, I wrote my classes each a letter that highlighted each student by name, and comprised some of our memories together, our shared goals, and our funny moments. I added this letter to the beginning of our class anthology to serve as a reminder of our Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 7.11.46 AM.pngstudents’ names and personalities. For my future teachers, I created our ideal school, in which we’d all teach and get to work together forever. In past years, I simply wrote a letter of well-wishes to my kids, and included each student’s name and a little compliment toward them all.


As we wrap up this school year, these simple gifts are things you might consider crafting to help end your year with students on a high note. It’s easy to get caught up in the end-of-semester hubbub of grades, exams, and packing up classrooms, but I hope you’ll pause to commemorate a year of learning as a group in some way with your students, as well.

Please share how you “wrap up” the school year meaningfully with your students! We’d love to know in the comments, on Facebook, or on Twitter!

Shana Karnes will soon be leaving the wild and wonderful mountains of West Virginia for the great lakes of Wisconsin. She is excited to continue her involvement in Appalachian education by leading institutes with the National Writing Project at West Virginia University this summer, but will otherwise be relaxing and devouring as many books as she can during her two daughters’ nap times. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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